What the new Major League Baseball, MLBPA and Cuba deal means to a former Cuban-American baseball player: COLUMN

PHOTO: Tony Perez, third baseman for the reds, and his wife, Pituka, and their two children Victor, left, and Tony, in Eduardos arms, become American citizens.PlayBettmann Archive/Getty Images
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ESPN analyst Eduardo Pérez, a former major league baseball player whose father emigrated from Cuba, discusses what the new agreement between the Cuban Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association means to him and other Cuban-born players. The agreement would allow players from the island to sign big league contracts without defecting.

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"La Esquina Caliente" (The Hot Corner) is a section in Havana's Central Park where heated discussions take place on a daily basis.

PHOTO: Baseball is a regular discussion among locals at La Esquina Caliente (The Hot Corner) in Havanas Central Park. Courtesy Eduardo Perez
Baseball is a regular discussion among locals at "La Esquina Caliente" (The Hot Corner) in Havana's Central Park.

These discussions, which seem to be as heated as two lovers quarreling, are often about the Cuban people's passion, their religion, their love for baseball — major league baseball, that is — and about what goes on north of Cuba, in the United States.

PHOTO: First Baseman Tony Perez #24 of the Cincinnati Reds goes to his left to make a play on the ball against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, circa 1972. Focus On Sport/Getty Images
First Baseman Tony Perez #24 of the Cincinnati Reds goes to his left to make a play on the ball against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, circa 1972.

Baseball is a sport that is deeply rooted in Cuba, dating back to the 1860s when young Cubans would study abroad in the United States and when sailors would bring the game back to the island.

It is also the game that made me who I am today. My father, Atanacio "Tony" Pérez, was only 17 years old when he signed a professional contract to play baseball. He went on to play first base in the majors in the U.S. for 23 years.

PHOTO: Former Cincinnati Reds player Tony Perez displays his plaque, after being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, during ceremonies, July 23, 2000, in Cooperstown, N.Y. John Dunn/AP
Former Cincinnati Reds player Tony Perez displays his plaque, after being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, during ceremonies, July 23, 2000, in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In 2000, he was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, becoming the only Cuban-born MLB player to be recognized in the hall.

Looking back, my father was fortunate to sign one of the last free-agent contracts before the Cuban Missile Crisis of the Cold War. He signed with the Cincinnatti Reds in 1960.

If you're saying to yourself, "Lucky him, he got paid!" He did not. He signed the contract to chase a dream — a $2.50 visa to get out of Cuba.

He arrived in Florida in 1960 not knowing the English language and witnessing segregation first hand. The plan was to return to Cuba once the season was over, and during the first couple of years, that’s exactly what he did. One day, however, my grandfather, José Manuel, told him to stay in the U.S. and not come back. The situation in Cuba wasn't looking good, and eventually, Cuba closed altogether.

PHOTO: ESPN analyst and former major league baseball player Eduardo Perez (right) is seen here with Pedro Luis Lazo. Courtesy Eduardo Perez
ESPN analyst and former major league baseball player Eduardo Perez (right) is seen here with Pedro Luis Lazo.

Since 1990, there have been 75 Cuban-born players to play major league baseball. Their dream of finally becoming a “big leaguer” was finally accomplished. But at what price? Well, you could easily say that it was with their lives.

Many left Cuba on rafts with loved ones seeking asylum in the U.S. Others made deals out of desperation with traffickers and smugglers. If you were even caught talking about defecting to the U.S. — or attempting it — you would not be allowed to join or stay on the Cuban Baseball National Team. Even worse, you wouldn't be allowed to make a living in Cuba playing the game you love.

It’s happened to many who sought fame and fortune to help out their loved ones.

As a result, more often than not, many players' dreams were crushed. Many felt the only way to out was by leaving their homeland, risking it all, for the sake of freedom.

Yasiel Puig, a Cuban-born right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jose Abreu, a Cuban-born first baseman for the Chicago White Sox, both signed contracts and made it to the majors. They’ve enjoyed success with their teams but endured harrowing episodes involving smugglers and human traffickers in the process.

PHOTO: Eduardo Perez of the California Angels fields during the game against the Cleveland Indians at Anaheim Stadium, April 11, 1994, in Anaheim, Calif. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Eduardo Perez of the California Angels fields during the game against the Cleveland Indians at Anaheim Stadium, April 11, 1994, in Anaheim, Calif.

Those are just two examples of the many stories that are all too common in the last 30 years.

This recent deal between the Cuban Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, will allow players from the island to sign big league contracts without defecting, in an effort to crack down on human trafficking. It benefits all parties involved in different ways.

But my heart is still broken, even after this deal. All parties are trying to do good for the love of the game. The Cuban players are still a long way from freedom, but I hope this is a step in the right direction.

I really can’t wait to get back to “La Esquina Caliente” to see what they think.

This story was featured in the Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast "Start Here."

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